Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.01.48 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.01.48

Christos Tsagalis, From Listeners to Viewers: Space in the Iliad. Hellenic studies, 53.   Washington, DC:  Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2012.  Pp. xi, 553.  ISBN 9780674067110.  $29.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ioannis Ziogas, Australian National University (

Foucault’s prediction that an epoch of space will succeed our obsession with history is reflected in a shift in Homeric scholarship from studying time to focusing on space. In recent years, several major publications have examined space as the key to interpreting the narrative dynamics of ancient epic.1 Tsagalis’ new book follows this trend and stands out as a thorough and original study of spatial constructions in the Iliad.

The book comprises an introduction, four parts (each divided into two chapters), a conclusion, two appendices, bibliography, and indices. The introduction sets out the theoretical and methodological parameters of Tsagalis’ study. Tsagalis offers an overview of current theoretical work on defining, classifying, and interpreting space, thus drawing attention right from the beginning to the interdisciplinary nature of his work. In particular, the insights of cognitive theory in examining the construction and perception of space play a crucial role in Tsagalis’ detailed examination of Homeric narrative segments.

Part 1 (“Viewing Simple Story Space in the Iliad”) zooms in on the relatively limited spatial framework of the Iliad’s main narrative. In contrast to the vast geographical range of the Odyssey and the exotic landscapes of the epic cycle, the Iliad’s restricted space and scenic frugality map out its strict heroic code. On the human level, all action takes place in the Achaean camp, in the city of Troy, and in the plain in between. This tripartite division turns the battlefield into a contested space on which the Trojan and Achaean heroes engage in hand to hand battle and claim glory on equal terms. Tsagalis is right to draw attention to the fact that this familiar arrangement is at odds with the story of a city under siege. The Trojan warriors are not hiding behind their walls, but rather they come out to confront the Greeks on the battleground between Troy and the Achaean camp.

The poet’s spatial demarcation is essential to the characterization of the heroes, the presentation of their value system, and the dramatic tension of the epic. Within this framework, Tsagalis examines how epic space is negotiated, appropriated, and transformed. Landscape markers become signs of protection and destruction, spatial organization delineates the arena of martial and social competition and isolation, whereas the setting of an epic duel between Glaukos and Diomedes transforms into a ground of a friendly encounter. On the divine level, the gods’ domain is markedly devoid of topography. The divine sphere is an alternative world of harmony, which contrasts sharply with the grim setting of human conflict.

Part 2 (“Homer is the Hero: Embedded Story Space”) moves from the topography of the main narrative to space in character text. Embedded speeches open up windows to sites and times outside the prescribed spatial frame of Iliadic action, and Tsagalis masterfully applies Bakhtin’s “chronotopes” (timespaces) to examining a juxtaposition between Troy in narrator text and territorial alternatives in character text. This part contains some of the highlights of the book. Tsagalis first focuses on the Catalogue of Ships, an exceptional case of spatially and temporally comprehensive narrator text, and argues that the all-inclusive worldview of the Catalogue ultimately highlights the Iliad’s selectivity.

In embedded speeches, the Greek cities the heroes left behind function as a mechanism projecting alternative narratives. Phthia is an “anti-Troy”, the place of Achilles’ unfulfilled nostos, or, from Briseis’ viewpoint, a topographical fantasy for a better life. The discontinuous way Achilles maps out his homeland reflects his tormented psyche. By contrast, Agamemnon’s construction of Argos systematically erases all the disturbing familial tensions that are left behind. While Achilles will never see Phthia again, Nestor, whose survival and homecoming are inscribed in his name, will return home after the war. Phthia and Pylos represent the contrasting fates of Achilles and Nestor.2

As a spatial alternative to the Trojan War, Thebes is particularly intriguing since it evokes the alternative epic tradition of the Theban cycle. In an excellent discussion of Sthenelos’ retort to Agamemnon, Tsagalis shows that Sthenelos taunts Agamemnon by implying that the tradition of the Epigoni, where Sthenelos truly belongs, surpasses not only the past of the Thebaid, but also the present of the Iliad. Outside the Greek world, the Troad and Lycia also become thematized spaces simultaneously removed from and integrated into the Iliad’s spatiotemporal framework.

The third part of the book (“Paratopic Space: Similes and Visual Imagery”) deals with extended similes. Building on the work of Elizabeth Minchin,3 who has examined the Homeric simile within the complex cognitive network of image and memory, Tsagalis focuses on space as one of the most powerful mechanisms for memory recall. The term “paratopic space” is coined in order to describe the relationship of simile space with narrative space; the space of similes exists “next to” or “beyond” (παρά) the space of the main narrative. While the poet employs homologous visual backgrounds for narrative scenes and corresponding similes, the spatial aspects of the similes are more vivid than the spatial outlines of the battle narrative. For Tsagalis, the poet conceives of similes by recalling images, not words, an argument that can explain the scarcity of epic formulae in the similes.

The frequency of the similes in the main narrative balances the single theater of the Trojan War with a plethora of alternative worlds, locations, and situations. As case studies, Tsagalis offers close readings and original interpretations of extended similes in Iliad 2, 5, 11, and 16. For Tsagalis, the poet places extended similes at cardinal points of the plot, but his choices are also determined by mental factors of image organization and recall. Space is crucial as a mental cue for image recall and as an organizational principle of narrative-simile pairs. The coordination of narrative and simile space creates mental links that tighten action and enhance memorability. The two appendices of the book supplement this part: Appendix 1 outlines the organization and function of the system of visual units in the similes of the books not examined in Part 3 and Appendix 2 examines the spatial markers of four similes attested in character text.

The last part of the book (“Descriptive Space”) deals with descriptions of objects in the Iliad and analyzes the storyteller’s methods of organizing mnemonic formats. This part is a tour de force of investigating the techniques of oral composition. Tsagalis argues that the oral poet constructs descriptions just as we all do in everyday life. Spatial memory is selective and a storyteller consciously refrains from giving complete descriptions. Instead, he or she provides the audience with information that will enable them to differentiate the described object from others of the same kind and thus picture it clearly in their minds. In examining the interaction between descriptive and narrative sections, Tsagalis employs methodology and interpretations similar to his analyses of simile and narrative space in Part 3.

The last chapter of the book deals with the much-discussed ecphrasis of the shield of Achilles. In the case of Achilles’ shield, ecphrastic space refers not only to “external” or “physical” space but also to the “internal” spaces of the various narrative snapshots. Tsagalis approaches ecphrastic space from the perspective of oral composition and argues that the storyteller uses the same techniques he employs in similes. Tsagalis’ focus on the material of the shield as part of its ecphrastic space is particularly intriguing. A conclusion helpfully summarizes the book’s main arguments.

Overall, the analysis is pressed into exhaustive detail, and Tsagalis offers a wealth of convincing and well-structured arguments. The outcome is a rare and successful combination of theoretical sophistication and philological rigor. The book contains a plethora of close readings of Homeric texts that are placed within the theoretical frameworks of narratology, cognitive linguistics, and oral poetics. The book’s thoroughness is very impressive, but it demands a dedicated reader. The number of theoretical concepts may be overwhelming, and the style of the book is at times dense. Yet, Tsagalis always makes sure that he explains all the theoretical concepts he employs or introduces, and all of these concepts are useful and constructive tools for his intricate arguments.

The title of the book (From Listeners to Viewers) alludes to the effect of enargeia (‘vividness’), the power of the Homeric epics to make the audience visualize narrative descriptions. The vividness of spatial images is closely related to their emotive power, and Tsagalis shows throughout his book how topography reflects and is reflected in the heroes’ psychology, emotions, and characterization. But the major contribution of this book consists, in my view, not in exploring audience response, but in analyzing the compositional techniques of oral poetry.

The book is carefully edited and beautifully produced and deserves a place in the library of every Homerist or any person interested in literary space.


1.   See Purves, A. 2010. Space and Time in Ancient Greek Narrative (Cambridge); Strauss Clay, J. 2011. Homer’s Trojan Theater: Space, Vision, and Memory in the Iliad (Cambridge); Jong, I.J.F. de (ed.) 2012. Space in Ancient Greek Literature (Leiden); Skempis, M., Ziogas, I. (eds.) 2013. Geography, Topography, Landscape: Configurations of Space in Greek and Roman Epic (Berlin; New York).
2.   My chapter on the topography of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Skempis, M., Ziogas, I. (eds.) 2013. Geography, Topography, Landscape: Configurations of Space in Greek and Roman Epic (Berlin; New York), 325-48, would have greatly benefitted from Tsagalis’ discussion of Phthia and Pylos, and it is a pity that I did not take his book into account due to the timing of publication.
3.   Minchin, E. 2001. Homer and the Resources of Memory: Some Applications of Cognitive Theory to the Iliad and the Odyssey (Oxford).

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